Ministry of Justice scheme will cover family law and civil cases, and aims to fill the gap left following cuts in legal aid.

A network of in-court advice centres providing support for unrepresented litigants in civil and family law cases is to be funded by the Ministry of Justice and expanded to cover the whole country.

The initiative launched by family justice minister Simon Hughes, is aimed at helping those no longer entitled to legal aid navigate their way through divorce proceedings and other complex claims.

There has been a surge in the number of “litigants in person” — those who do not have lawyers to argue on their behalf. As many as 650,000 people were deprived of support by changes to legal aid, in most cases involving family disputes, welfare benefits, clinical negligence, employment, housing, debt, immigration and education.

The problem is most acute in the family courts where relationship breakdowns often require parents to take immediate action. Hearings have become protracted and judges are forced to intervene repeatedly to explain the legal process. The family law organisation, Resolution, has described the family courts as being at “breaking point”.

£1.4m a year will fund the initiative, including the pioneering work of the Personal Support Unit, which already provides advice in eight court centres in England and Wales. The aim is to expand the number of advisers into courts across the country and link claimants up with pro bono lawyers who can offer free legal support and, in some cases, even court representation.

Hughes, a Liberal Democrat, is aware the initiative will not solve every legal need but believes it will be a significant contribution in a climate of austerity. Advisers for the new service will use court premises and are expected to come from a variety of backgrounds: law graduates, those still studying and retired people with professional backgrounds.

“There have always been lots of litigants in person in the courts,” Hughes said, although he acknowledges the numbers have increased. The number of private family law cases where both parties were represented fell by nearly 40% in April to June 2014 compared to the same quarter the previous year.

Part of the aim is to encourage claimants, particularly in separation and divorce cases, to resolve differences outside court, particularly through mediation. Working with Cafcass, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, a telephone and online advice service will be provided to help steer claimants in the right direction..

Hughes praised Mike Napier, a former president of the Law Society who is also the attorney general’s “pro bono envoy”, and Sir Robin Knowles QC, who has recently became a high court judge, for helping develop the scheme.

Napier said: “This is an important funding initiative in response to increases in litigants in person. By collaborating with the pro bono community, it’s providing support when people turn up in court feeling lost and worried and needing legal help.”

Judith March, director of the Personal Support Unit, said: “It’s a relatively inexpensive service to run. We already have some funding from law schools, local authorities and the legal profession. Our volunteers include students, former social workers, those who have left the armed services and retired teachers.

Law schools at universities are increasingly taking up what is known as ‘clinical legal education’, encouraging students to help — under supervision — those who cannot afford to hire lawyers.

Anthony Douglas, chief executive of Cafcass, said: “We are looking to put in place a more universal service so that people don’t automatically think first of having a [courtroom] fight but will have a try at dispute resolution.”

Sometimes dealing with unrepresented litigants means that problems can be dealt with more directly, Douglas suggested. “They are going through profound emotional distress, broken-hearted, betrayed and angry. Often [what’s important] is improving their relationship capability rather than having a definitive judgment.”

Article source: The Guardian Thursday 23rd October 2014

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